It wasn’t a masterpiece of a football game.
It fact, it was quite gruesome at times, as the Falcons, the defending NFC South champs, lost 23-17 to the New Orleans Saints on Sunday at the Superdome.
“If we score 17 points, I’m just saying: That’s terrible,” Falcons receiver Roddy White said. “You know? I’m just telling the truth. All of the guys that we have we should be able to score a lot more points than that.”
Yet, on a day when the offense was sputtering and couldn’t protect quarterback Matt Ryan, the Falcons still somehow had a chance to win.
A fourth-and-goal pass from the 3 intended for a smothered Tony Gonzalez was tipped and intercepted by Saints safety Roman Harper with 43 seconds left.
The Falcons, considered Super Bowl title contenders in some quarters, dropped to 0-1. The Saints, trying to rebound from a down season, got off to 1-0 start as head coach Sean Payton returned to the sidelines after a year-long suspension for the Bounty Gate scandal.
Ryan was under duress for most of the game as he was either sacked or hit on almost a fourth of the Falcons’ 38 pass attempts.
Before the key interception, the Falcons lost a chance to tie the game on third down, when running back Steven Jackson dropped an apparent touchdown pass in the end zone.
“When my number is called, I expect to make plays,” Jackson said. “Difficult, easy or whatever. That’s the expectation that I have of myself. I don’t live in a ‘what if’ world. I expect to make the play… I expect to make the play … I expect to make the play. I dropped the ball. ”
Ryan completed 25 of 38 passes for 304 yards, two touchdowns and had the interception on his final toss. He had a passer rating of 96.8.
Overall, Jackson, signed to replace Michael Turner, had a strong debut. He rushed for 77 yards on 11 carries and caught five passes for 45 yards. The Falcons have lauded his pass-catching ability as an upgrade over Turner, but he had two drops on eight targets.
The Falcons didn’t appear to be in sync offensively.
Because of injuries and Gonzalez’s deal to miss most of training camp, the passing attack had limited practice time together during training camp and in the exhibition season.
So, it was not a surprise that everything just didn’t click immediately.
The pass blocking also hindered the offense’s performance.
The Falcons tried every little trick in the book to hide their blocking deficiencies that were exposed during the exhibition season.
They used backs to chip.
The used center/guard Joe Hawley as a tight end.
They used extra tight ends.
They threw a plethora of screens.
All of the ploys worked to varying degrees, but when the Saints needed stops, they were able to put pressure on Ryan and rendered the offense ineffective.
After the Falcons scored on two of their first three possessions, the Saints defense gave up just one score over the next eight possessions. In addition to the interception, wide receiver Julio Jones had a first half fumble that was converted to a touchdown in the ensuing drive.
Later, down by six with 3:12 to play following a Saints’ field goal, Ryan went on the attack.
Behind some pinpoint passing, the Falcons marched from the 20-yard line to the Saints’ 3-yard line in seven plays.
“I thought it was a very well executed two minute drive,” said Falcons coach Mike Smith. “We got down inside the 10-yard line. We had some opportunities to make the plays and we did not get them done.”
Ryan didn’t believe that the offense lacked continuity.
“It might have played a part in it,” said Jones of the lack of practice time together.
Smith was not pleased with Ryan’s pass protection. Normally, he’ll say that he has to look at the film to evaluate a unit’s play. But he didn’t need to after this game.
“We’ve got to protect the quarterback better than we did today,” Smith said. “There are a lot of things that we have got to do better. He was hit entirely too many times.”
The offensive line was revamped in the offseason with Todd McClure retiring and Tyson Clabo being released is a salary cap move. Peter Konz started at center and Lamar Holmes at right tackle,
“I don’t particularly feel there was one guy,” Smith said. “There was pressure on right side, left side and up the middle. Those are the things that we have to correct as a unit.”
On the final play of the game, the Falcons had three receivers to the left. They’d scored earlier out of the same formation when Jones got free in the back of the end zone.
But, with the game on the line, the Saints didn’t let Jones get off the line of scrimmage.
“They doubled me on that last play,” Jones said. “I was just trying to fight my way through to get open, but I couldn’t.”
Ryan and Smith said his first option was taken away.
“I thought they covered it well,” Ryan said. “We didn’t have anything initially. But it was a good play call by them and good execution on their part.
The defense, playing without cornerback Asante Samuel, blew a double-digit lead for the third straight game. They also blew leads of 17 and 20 points in the playoffs against Seattle and San Francisco.
The Falcons will try to rebound against the St. Louis Rams at 1 p.m. Sunday at the Georgia Dome.
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